France’s environment minister, who has championed Emmanuel Macron’s legislation on probity and transparency in politics, is facing allegations he improperly spent public funds on lavish dinners and apartment renovation while president of the lower house of parliament.
François de Rugy, who defected from the left to join Mr Macron’s centrist party during the 2017 presidential campaign, has come under fire after revelations he and his wife hosted dinners featuring lobsters and fine wine such as Château Cheval-Blanc 2001, estimated to be worth €550, in the National Assembly.
Claims, reported by investigative site Mediapart on Tuesday, also involved a €63,000 refurbishment of Mr de Rugy’s official ministerial residence, including a €15,000 dressing room.
The allegations have embarrassed the unpopular French president, who is frequently labelled by critics as “president of the rich” for being out of touch with ordinary voters.
Adding to Mr de Rugy’s woes, his chief of staff resigned on Wednesday evening at the minister’s request following another Mediapart report about her use for more than a decade of a state-subsidised residence in Paris while not even living in the French capital.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Mr de Rugy insisted dinners were linked to his job and said that if there had been any errors of judgment on his part he would be “ready to correct them”.
“I understand that the French people might have been shocked by certain [pictures],” said Mr de Rugy. He called the allegations “insinuations fed by an anonymous and malicious source”.
Mr Macron backed his minister when the scandal first broke. But on Thursday afternoon, Mr Rugy met Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, who called for an investigation into the affair.
After the meeting with Mr Philippe, Mr de Rugy said he wanted to leave “no doubt” in the minds of the French people and agreed “to repay every disputed euro” for both the dinners and the costs incurred at his official residence.
“If even the least ambiguity remains following the investigation” Mr de Rugy “commits to repay every disputed euro”, the prime minister’s office told AFP.
However on Thursday evening, after his meeting with Mr Philippe, Mediapart added another report, saying that Mr de Rugy had also benefitted from subsidised housing since 2016.
Mr de Rugy defended himself, saying that he had been the subject of “a new attack by Mediapart” about an apartment he rented to spend time with his children at weekends.
“This information, if it is true, I have never known myself,” said Mr de Rugy on Facebook while publishing emails with his estate agent, his lease and his responses to Mediapart.
On Wednesday, Mediapart had published details of about 10 dinners, some essentially organised by Mr de Rugy’s wife, held between 2017 and 2018.
The scrutiny of Mr de Rugy comes in the wake of the gilets jaunes protest movement which attacked Mr Macron as an out-of-touch president of the rich. While the movement has dwindled since it began in November, in part due to €17bn in spending promises by the government, it continues to animate French politics.
Mr de Rugy took to Facebook to defend himself against the allegations, saying the reporting was “misleading” and that the dinners were mostly with people “coming from the economic, media, cultural, scientific and university worlds”.
The “informal working dinners” were to allow him to get out of a “political bubble”, he said, while the works on the apartment were “carried out in strict compliance with the legal rules and procedures in force”.
Mr Macron appointed Mr de Rugy as his environment minister last September following the resignation of Nicolas Hulot, one of the government’s most popular figures.
After a failed bid to become the Socialist presidential nominee in 2016, he supported Mr Macron.
For years he campaigned for more transparency in politics, something his critics have been quick to point out.
“What is sad is that when he was a member of parliament . . . he was someone who was very serious about how public money was spent,” said Yannick Jadot, an MEP for the French Green party, EELV.